House debates

Monday, 3 June 2013

Private Members' Business

Bahrain: Human Rights

6:39 pm

Photo of Michael DanbyMichael Danby (Melbourne Ports, Australian Labor Party, Parliamentary Secretary for Arts) Share this | Hansard source

I am glad to have this opportunity to speak about the situation in Bahrain, as we did this morning about the situation of Assyrian Christians, particularly in northern Iraq. When the Arab Spring swept across the Middle East in 2011, there were high hopes that this would lead to a new age of freedom and democracy in the Arab world. In Tunisia last year, I met Rashid Ghannushi, the head of the moderate Islamist party Ennahda. His comments disassociating himself and his party from Hamas were most encouraging, but unfortunately there has been much unwelcome backsliding of democracy in Tunisia. I trust the words of Mr Ghannushi, and I call upon him to address the situation there.

In Bahrain, however, the Arab Spring produced a deadlock between the king and his government, dominated by the Sunni Muslim minority, and the Shiah majority of the population. Since 2011, there have been a series of mass demonstrations in Bahrain against the government, demanding free elections and an end to Sunni domination. The government has met these demonstrations with violent repression and highly political trials. Over 100 people have been killed and many have suffered torture while in detention. The government went so far as to prosecute and imprison doctors and nurses who gave medical aid to demonstrators who had been injured by police gunfire or affected by tear gas. Over 50 medical professionals were convicted of sedition, and about a dozen are still in prison. This is a disgraceful proceeding. Doctors who are undertaking the requirements of the Hippocratic oath should not be treated like this and have rightly brought Bahrain international condemnation. All of this is deplorable, and I join with the members for Werriwa and Scullin in demanding that the government of Bahrain cease violent repression of peaceful demonstrations and release all who have been arrested for taking part in such demonstrations, particularly the doctors and nurses, who are doing no more than their medical duty.

At the same time, however, we need to be cautious in our approach to this situation. From 1602 to 1783, Bahrain was under the control of the Persian Empire. The Islamist regime in Tehran has not forgotten this and regards Bahrain as part of its sphere of influence. Since the Islamic revolution in Iran in 1979, the ayatollahs, particularly Ayatollah Khamenei, have continued to seek to extend Iran's power to the Gulf region and have consistently interfered in the internal affairs of Bahrain and other Gulf States.

It is clearly not in the interests of peace in the Middle East that the Iranian regime gain control of the Gulf States. The King of Bahrain postulates himself as a friend of the West, and Bahrain provides basing facilities for the US Fifth Fleet. I make no apology for the fact that it would be against peace in the Middle East, against democratic interests and against Australia's interests for the government of Bahrain to be overthrown and replaced by an Islamist regime controlled by Iran.

But there are other ways out of this dilemma. If the government of Bahrain wishes to stay in power and retain the support of the democratic world and of other people in the Middle East, it needs to win the confidence of its own subjects. As the member for Scullin suggested, the people of Bahrain should be allowed to enter into a dialogue with their government. The king should release all political prisoners and allow free elections within a constitutional framework that guarantees the rights and freedoms of all Bahrainis. Then Bahrain would be a worthy recipient of the support of the democratic world against Iranian expansionism, amongst other things.

I commend the member for Werriwa and the member for Scullin for their participation in this debate—and indeed the member for Werriwa's initiation of it—and join them in calling for a national peaceful dialogue in Bahrain, which has recently commenced and recently been suspended. I call on the government of Bahrain to recommence those peaceful negotiations as soon as possible in the interests of all of its subjects and peace in that part of the world.


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